2010 - %3, November

WikiLeaks: Clinton Wanted Info on Iranian Graffiti

| Sun Nov. 28, 2010 11:03 PM EST

Amid all the serious intrigues and statecraft revealed in "Cablegate," WikiLeaks' slow but steady data dump of 251,287 internal US State Department communications, there's 09STATE47326...a strange cable dated May 8, 2009, that seems to indicate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton couldn't read the writing on the wall—literally—in Iran.

"WASHINGTON ANALYSTS ARE HIGHLY INTERESTED IN CONFIRMING A REPORT REGARDING AN IRANIAN GOVERNMENT DECISION TO REMOVE ANTI-AMERICAN SLOGANS AND ART FROM TEHRAN'S BUILDINGS," the cable's author wrote (on Clinton's behalf) to Iran experts posted around the globe. "THESE CHANGES COULD REPRESENT AN IMPORTANT INDICATOR ON TEHRAN'S VIEWS TOWARDS ENGAGEMENT WITH THE US AND FURTHER INFORMATION ON THE EFFORT AND GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS INVOLVED IN THE DECISION, POSTS' TIME AND RESOURCES PERMITTING, WOULD BE VERY VALUABLE."

The cable then goes on to ask a series of critical questions about the alleged Iran graffiti program that Clinton wanted answered: "WHAT, IF ANY, ANTI-AMERICAN SLOGANS AND MURALS ARE CURRENTLY BEING REPLACED IN TEHRAN, INCLUDING THOSE IN AZADI SQUARE AND THE "DOWN WITH AMERICA" MURAL ON KARIM KHAN AVENUE? WHAT, IF ANY, PLANS ARE THERE TO REPLACE SUCH MURALS?...IF THERE ARE PLANS TO REPLACE THE MURALS, WHO AUTHORIZED THEM? WHAT ARE THE REASONS FOR THE MURAL REPLACEMENT PLAN?"

Tehran's anti-US murals are the stuff of legends, from the former American embassy (now a Revolutionary Guard headquarters) to street scenes like the one pictured above. And if they were about to go away as a result of mass government action, that could be a useful bellwether. Too bad the State Department hadn't realized its alert was based on bad information.

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Bombing Iran

| Sun Nov. 28, 2010 6:52 PM EST

I have a question. Several people are suggesting that the most interesting/damaging part of the WikiLeaks embassy cable dump is the revelation that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has repeatedly asked the United States to bomb Iran. Dave Schuler comments:

It isn’t just King Abdullah—the rulers of Jordan, Bahrain, and Abu Dhabi have apparently all made similar requests and leaders in Egypt have stopped just short of that.

IMO were Israel or the United States to eliminate Iran’s nuclear development capability by force Iran’s neighbors would make some outraged noises while being secretly relieved. These leaks have removed the possibility of cloaking their hostility with such a figleaf from the Sunni regimes of the Middle East.

Here's my question: is this really news? I thought it was common knowledge that most of the Gulf states felt this way. It's obviously true that "common knowledge" isn't the same thing as a bunch of diplomatic cables that confirms this stuff to the world, but still. Everyone seems to have known this already, presumably including the Iranian leadership.

Am I off base here? It seems like I've heard this so many times that it didn't even register as something newsworthy to me. But maybe I'm missing something here.

POSTSCRIPT: Perhaps I'm just being too America-centric. Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist acknowledges that many of the cables "just confirm certain widely held theories," but nonetheless thinks the diplomatic damage will be huge:

There is so much information flowing around about US policy — and often, a good deal of transparency — that a smart observer with good contacts can get a good idea of what's happening. Not so in the Arab world, and the contents of the conversations Arab leader are having with their patron state are not out in the Arab public domain or easily guessable, as anyone who reads the meaningless press statements of government press agencies will tell you. Cablegate is in important record from the Arab perspective, perhaps more than from the US one.

So: more important to the Arab world than to us. Maybe so. In fact, probably so.

Yet More American Secrets No Longer Secret

| Sun Nov. 28, 2010 6:22 PM EST

The WikiLeaks release of 251,000 U.S. embassy cables is, I'm told, a "diplomatic crisis." Hillary Clinton is running point on damage control. Foreign allies are on high alert. Life will never be the same. So what's in those cables? Here's the Guardian's bullet list:

Grave fears in Washington and London over the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme.... Suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government....The extraordinarily close relationship between Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister....Allegations that Russia and its intelligence agencies are using mafia bosses to carry out criminal operations....Inappropriate remarks by a member of the British royal family.

Say it ain't so! Corruption in the Afghan government? Silvio Berlusconi is a douche? Prince Andrew said something naughty? Pass the smelling salts. But maybe the New York Times has more. Here's their list:

A dangerous standoff with Pakistan over nuclear fuel....Gaming out an eventual collapse of North Korea....Bargaining to empty the Guantánamo Bay prison....Suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government....Mixed records against terrorism....Arms deliveries to militants....Clashes with Europe over human rights.

Oh, and the Saudis would like us to bomb Iran, thankyouverymuch. Yawn. Even Der Spiegel, which excels at finding the most sensational spin possible on this kind of thing, was pretty much stumped:

What, though, do the thousands of documents prove? Do they really show a US which has the world on a leash? Are Washington's embassies still self-contained power centers in their host countries?

In sum, probably not. In the major crisis regions, an image emerges of a superpower that can no longer truly be certain of its allies — like in Pakistan, where the Americans are consumed by fear that the unstable nuclear power could become precisely the place where terrorists obtain dangerous nuclear material.

Andrew Sullivan actually thought the cables showed that the State Department is on the ball: "Overall, I have to say that this brief glimpse into how the government actually works is actually reassuring. The cable extracts are often sharp, smart, candid and penetrating. Who knew the US government had so many talented diplomats?"

Now, I did leave a few things out. There's some interesting stuff about the Chinese Google hack, some frank and candid military assessments of British troops in Afghanistan, a bit of Israeli bluster about bombing Iran (though it's nearly identical to Jeffrey Goldberg's very public piece in the Atlantic a couple of months ago), and confirmation that embassy officials often try to spy on people in their host countries. And the Turkish government is probably going to be pretty pissed at us for a while. Still, this is hardly sensational stuff. In fact, what's really struck me so far is how little our diplomats talk out of school in private cables.

Maybe there's more to come on this,1 but so far I just don't see these leaks causing an epic amount of damage. Obviously feelings will be bruised by the blunt language in some of the cables — though if Spiegel's excerpts are typical, the language is only slightly blunter than your run-of-the-mill anonymous carping — and foreign officials might be reluctant for a while to share confidences with American diplomats. And just as obviously, the United States would really prefer that its confidential cables remain confidential. Hillary Clinton will indeed have her hands full for a while. But honestly, there's hardly anything here that I haven't already read on the front pages of multiple newspapers. Titillating, but not much more.

1In fact, Blake Hounshell tweets: "Anyone who thinks this batch of WikiLeaks docs is not interesting clearly isn't reading them." Marc Lynch agrees: "Guardian + NYT undersold them." So maybe there really is more to come. The three English-language accounts, however, just don't make this stuff seem especially earthshaking.

Obama's Deficit Commission Prepares to Carve Its Turkey

| Sun Nov. 28, 2010 2:49 PM EST

The dread report of the White House’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is due out this week.  One of the Commission’s co-chairs, the putative Democrat and consummate wheeler-dealer Erskine Bowles, has been up on the Hill flogging their plan to reduce the debt by cutting the country’s already skimpy programs for the old, the sick, and the poor. His partner, motor-mouth Republican Alan Simpson, continues his ranting and ravings against the greedy geezers who want to sink his entitlement-cutting ship before it’s launched. Both of them have taken to boo-hooing because no one appreciates all the work they are doing to save the nation from certain fiscal doom, and nobody is willing to pitch in to meet this noble goal.

Personally, I’m still waiting to hear how Wall Street is going to pitch in and do its part--or the people with high six-figure incomes who claim they still aren’t rich enough to give up their tax cuts. Or, for that matter, Bowles and Simpson themselves, who retired on fat  pensions and don’t have a financial care in the world.  Since none of this is likely to happen any time soon, we’d better take a good hard look at what these sanctimonious old coots have come up with.

We already know a lot about what to expect from the Fiscal Commission Plan, since the co-chairs released their own preliminary proposals (as yet unapproved by the 18-member Commission) earlier this month. According to people with access to the Commission’s thinking, they seem to believe their best bet is to achieve consensus on a proposal to change the way Social Security’s annual cost of living increases (COLAs) are calculated. What seems like a mere accounting adjustment would, in reality, severely affect benefits over time. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare explains the impact of this scheme:

Meet Psalty the Singing Songbook

| Sun Nov. 28, 2010 12:29 PM EST

Daniel Radosh's Rapture Readyis one of those books where, as soon as you finish, you wish you could go back in time and revisit something you wrote previously, now that you actually know what you're talking about. In this case, that would be my dispatch from the Focus on the Family bookstore in Colorado Springs. At the time I wrote that Christian pop culture was about added value: product + God = better product. But there's actually a pretty intense debate, as Radosh's book makes clear, over contemporary Christian performing arts. Should Christians try to work within the secular system and promote their values through actions? Should they shun the system and purge their pop culture of non-Christian references? And beyond that, should they really be focusing so much on profits rather than, say, prophets?

It's a fascinating book; Radosh checks in on Christian music festivals, Christian wrestling, Christian chick-lit (and its End Times counterpart, Christian pit-lit), Christian stand-up comedy, Christian Batman ("Bibleman"), Christian raves, Christian sex workshops—you name it, really. Anyway, check it out. And in the meantime, here's a clip of Psalty the Singing Songbook, my favorite revelation (sorry) from the book; he's like a mix of Ronald McDonald and Spongebob, if Spongebob weren't an agent of the homosexual agenda:

Paying the Piper

| Sun Nov. 28, 2010 1:47 AM EST

Bruce Bartlett:

A prime reason why we have a budget deficit problem in this country is because Republicans almost universally believe in a nonsensical idea called starve the beast (STB). By this theory, the one and only thing they need to do to be fiscally responsible is to cut taxes. They need not lift a finger to cut spending because it will magically come down, just as a child will reduce her spending if her allowance is cut — the precise analogy used by Ronald Reagan to defend this doctrine in a Feb. 5, 1981, address to the nation.

Bruce goes on to look at the empirical evidence — namely that spending went down after the Clinton tax increases and up after the Bush tax cuts — and concludes that STB is a "crackpot theory." True! But what makes it even more crackpotty is that basic economic principles, of the kind that Republicans are endlessly lecturing the rest of us about, predict the same thing. If you raise taxes to pay for government programs, you're essentially making them expensive. Conversely, if you cut taxes, you're making government spending cheaper. So what does Econ 101 say happens when you reduce the price of something? Answer: demand for it goes up.

Cutting taxes makes government spending less expensive for taxpayers, which makes them want more of it. And politicians, obliging creatures that they are, are eager to give the people what they want. Result: lots of spending and lots of deficits.

If you want to reduce spending, the best way to do it is to raise taxes so that registered voters actually have to pay for the services they get. I don't have a cute name for this theory, but it's true nonetheless. Even for Republicans.

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Our Boring Future

| Sun Nov. 28, 2010 1:15 AM EST

Nassim Nicholas Taleb thinks the nation state is fated to disappear over the next couple of decades, to be replaced by "city-states and statelings" that rely on a gold standard and can manage their finances properly. Matt Yglesias is skeptical:

Maybe so. And yet it seems to me that people have been predicting the nation-state’s demise for a long time and it seems like a very robust structure. If anything the trend I see toward greater adherence to a strict interpretation of what a nation-state is supposed to be. Belgium splitting in into two properly “national” states seems much more plausible than Los Angeles emerging as a quasi-sovereign entity.

Yeah, I don't think LA is quite destined for national greatness yet. Ditto for the idea that our current recession spells some kind of permanent change in "consumerism" and spending habits. I know this kind of thing sounds cool, but it's really unlikely that even a big global recession is going to fundamentally change either the course of human history or the current state of the art in human nature.

Our problems today may loom large, but they're also quite solvable. True, the solutions involve a fair amount of nonheroic drudgery, and that's not very much fun to write about, but it's a whole lot more likely to improve actual human lives. Noses to the grindstone, folks.

Hard Truths on Afghanistan

| Sat Nov. 27, 2010 1:40 PM EST

I don't remember where I first saw this, but Ahmed Rashid's two-hour interview with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, someone he's known for 26 years, is essential reading:

Afghan president Hamid Karzai is a changed man. His worldview now is decidedly anti-Western....By the end of our talk, it was quite clear to me that his views on global events, on the future course of NATO’s military surge in southern Afghanistan, and on nation building efforts throughout his country have undergone a sea change. His single overriding aim now is making peace with the Taliban and ending the war—and he is convinced it will help resolve all the other problems he faces, such as corruption, bad governance, and the lack of an administration.

....He no longer supports the war on terrorism as defined by Washington and says that the current military surge in the south by the United States and its NATO allies is unhelpful....Karzai also maintains that there is a political alternative to NATO: much more of the onus could be placed on countries in the region—especially Iran and Pakistan—to end the war and help reach a settlement with the Taliban. Senior Western and Afghan officials in Kabul say Iran has stepped up its support to the Taliban in western Afghanistan in recent months, possibly as a bargaining chip for future talks on a peace settlement. For its part, Pakistan, where the entire leadership of the Taliban is based, wants a leading part in any talks that NATO or Karzai may have with the Taliban. Yet Karzai told me that in the last six months neither Iran nor Pakistan has provided any substantive support to facilitate peacemaking.

There have been several reports recently suggesting that Karzai has given up on the U.S., followed by other reports that, no, he really hasn't. But Rashid's interview, which is the deepest and clearest that I've seen, seems to confirm that the earlier reports were the real deal. Karzai really has definitively wearied of the U.S. presence and really would like us to leave.

He hasn't insisted, of course, because his government would almost certainly collapse within weeks or months if NATO weren't around to prop it up. Beyond that obvious reality, there's also an odd strain of delusion here that I'm surprised Rashid didn't follow up on: namely Karzai's contention that Iran and Pakistan should help end the war and reach a settlement with the Taliban. That may be true, but as Karzai himself points out, neither country appears to have any serious motivation to do so. Apparently he thinks Iran and Pakistan could somehow take NATO's place, even though he acknowledges that neither has been helpful, and neither really shows any signs of being helpful in the future.

From the U.S. point of view, of course, they key thing isn't whether Karzai is tired or delusional or getting bad advice. What really matters is that over the past year he's apparently come to the firm conclusion that a continued U.S. presence is unhelpful. This pretty plainly makes our military efforts in Afghanistan pointless. As Gen. Petraeus and his counterinsurgency gurus continually tell us, political support is crucial to eventual success. If we don't have it — and it's now about as clear as it can be that we don't — then all the Lisbon conferences in the world won't produce a plan for victory. It's about time for Barack Obama to start leveling with the American public about this.

The Volt and You

| Fri Nov. 26, 2010 5:54 PM EST

The EPA has released its official mileage ratings for the Chevy Volt, and Dodd is unimpressed:

The woefully limited 35-mile range on battery and mere 37 MPG on gas leaves one wondering what all that hype was really about.

I don't actually care about the Volt all that much, but this is a really common reaction and seems completely misguided to me. No car is designed to appeal to every single person, and the Volt is no exception. It's designed mostly to appeal to a specific kind of driver: someone who does the great bulk of their driving around town, maybe 20 or 30 miles a day at most, but occasionally needs to drive further and doesn't want to buy a second car just for those occasions. There are lots of people like that, and for them the Volt is great. They'll spend 98% of their time running solely on battery power and recharging at night when rates are low, and 2% of their time getting 37 mpg — which is actually pretty damn good. There are a few hybrids that do slightly better and one hybrid (the Prius) that does a lot better, and that's about it.

If you commute a hundred miles a day, the Volt isn't for you. If you're a traveling salesman, it's not for you. If you need to haul around a Boy Scout troop, it's not for you. If you need lots of towing capacity, it's not for you. But that's not a problem. It's not supposed to be for you. It's for people who drive ten miles to work each day, run some errands on the weekend, and drive out to grandma's house once a month. Those folks are going to get pretty awesome fuel efficiency, and they're going to get it with just one car. What's not to like?1

1Answer: the price tag. That's really the car's only serious Achilles' heel. Even after the government rebate, it'll run you around $33,000 for a car that would cost less than $20,000 with a standard engine. Until the price of the car comes down, it's going to be a tough sell for anyone who's not dazzled by its eco-friendliness.

GOP Symbolism

| Fri Nov. 26, 2010 2:45 PM EST

A few weeks ago I suggested that House Republicans would mostly try to buy off their deficit-hating tea party supporters with a series of meaningless symbolic votes. Little did I know just how literally that would come true. Ripping a page from the Newt Gingrich playbook, it appears that they're all set to end the practice of passing honorific resolutions:

Today's Republicans, imbued with a sense that Washington's priorities have become muddled, contend that most commemorations are a waste of floor time needed for more pressing matters.

"I do not suspect that Jefferson or Madison ever envisioned Congress honoring the 2,560th anniversary of the birth of Confucius or supporting the designation of National Pi Day," said Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the next House majority leader. "I believe people want our time, energy and efforts focused on their priorities."

Apparently they're doing this because voting on resolutions takes up too much floor time and costs the taxpayers too much money. Neither of which happens to be true, but so what? It sounds good. I recommend that Cantor introduce a resolution seeking a sense of the House about banning resolutions. It should impress the yokels, and I imagine that's all he's really after here.

When Democrats took over the House in 2006 they instituted PAYGO and put some teeth back in the ethics process. Now that Republicans have taken over they plan to ditch PAYGO and disband the Office of Congressional Ethics. But they're going to end the practice of honoring National Pi Day! That's change you can believe in.